Daniel Alfonso Colón-Ramos always liked asking questions. Growing up in Puerto Rico, his questions earned him a lousy reputation among teachers. But now as a professor of Cell Biology and Neuroscience at Yale University, Colón-Ramos’ endless inquiries have led him to win ASCB’s 2016 E.E. Just Award for outstanding scientific achievement by a minority scientist. Colón-Ramos will give the E.E. Just Lecture at the 2016 ASCB Annual Meeting, receiving a plaque and a medal for his accomplishments.
accomplishments. In Puerto Rico, Colón-Ramos remembered, “My teachers gave me the nickname ‘the student of 1,000 questions.’ It wasn’t kindly given.” But his thousands of questions led him to discover a career where asking questions was rewarded, “I learned early on that scientists asked questions, and I thought, ‘Here’s a profession where I can ask questions about what was going on around me.’” Pursuing biology, he earned his bachelor’s at Harvard, and then joined Sally Kornbluth’s lab at Duke University for his PhD in genetics and molecular biology.
After finishing his PhD, Colón-Ramos realized that, “I had this skillset to answer any question.” And the questions he wanted to answer turned on “how cells self-organize in tissues during development.” Looking for postdoc positions, he spoke to Kang Shen at Stanford University who was working on neurodevelopment in Caenorhabditis elegans. “It just completely blew my mind what you could do with C. elegans, how well you could link cell biology to the behavior of the organism,” Colón-Ramos said.
The possibilities in working with C. elegans still excite him. In his recent work at Yale, he’s used C. elegans to study energy flow at the neuronal synapse. “In neurons you have synapses far away from the cell body [where mitochondria make the cell’s energy], but the synapses need energy to do their function,” he explained. “We discovered through forward genetic screens that glycolytic proteins [ancient enzymes involved in energy production] respond to local energy demands at the synapse.” Clusters of these energy generators, called glycolytic metabolons, were believed to exist, but this was the first time they were observed in neurons and a living organism.
“I feel very privileged that I could follow my passion,” Colón-Ramos said, “in great extent due to mentors that I’ve had, and other minority scientists who came before me,” While he has managed to make his way in the current research system, Colón-Ramos believes that it’s important to recognize the historic legacy that limited the advance of women and minority scientists. The biomedical enterprise must look closely at what is limiting participation by previously excluded groups, and address those issues. “As a scientist one of the things I value is ideas from other scientists. I hate to think that the opportunities of some scientists are limited by their background,” said Colón-Ramos. “That’s not something I want for science.”
“My main piece of advice to a minority scientist second-guessing their place: You belong and science needs your ideas and your inputs,” Colón-Ramos said. He continued, “Science is a humanistic enterprise that belongs to every person. It doesn’t belong to one group, one demographic, or one country. It belongs to everyone. The knowledge that emerges from scientists impacts all of us. Knowledge is a fundamental part of the human experience.”